A little over a year ago, I lost my job and moved to Chicago to take part in a program that promised to turn anyone into a web developer.
The experience was a pivotal moment in my life because it opened my eyes to one simple truth: anyone can learn how to code. By watching the progress of my classmates I realized that it doesn’t take four years, a mountain of debt, prerequisites in calculus or even a high school diploma to learn programming.
After returning home to Toronto I set aside my ambition to start a software company because of an even greater desire to share the same opportunity I had been given. We created Bitmaker Labs, a web development bootcamp, to help our friends escape from dead-end jobs and unfulfilling careers. We wanted to give them superpowers that would put them on a better path in life. By ratcheting up the intensity of my own experience and building a network of startups that were starved for talent, we believed we could train anyone to become a web developer and do so in nine weeks.
We didn’t promise any of the graduates of our first cohort a transcript or a piece of paper at the end of their experience. We were upfront in letting students know that we weren’t accredited and offered a classroom environment unlike anything they had ever seen before. But despite the scrappiness of our school and its startup atmosphere, none of it seemed to hinder their learning. Over 80% have landed jobs in web development or launched companies of their own.
This begs the question: how could something so outside the norm of traditional education be so successful? And if education is meant to be the ultimate equalizer, why are so many postsecondary institutions failing Canadians by leading them down a path to joblessness and mountains of debt?
The Canadian Federation of Students estimates the average student will graduate with nearly $28,000 of debt. Most will take 10 years to pay back their loans, inhibiting their ability to buy a car, own a home, or start a family. To make matters worse, many Canadians are being trained for an economic reality that no longer exists, leading to a skills mismatch between employers and workers. The author of a recent economic research report published by CIBC characterized the situation as “simply big enough to impact the economy as a whole, our productivity, our potential growth and therefore our standard of living in the future.”
Nowhere is this skill shortage more apparent than in our technology sector. The Conference Board of Canada estimates that by 2020 there will be a shortage of one million skilled workers in the country while an estimated 40% of all new jobs will be created in the skilled trades and technology industries.
Education policy is a major driver of our problems today because it was designed for an entirely different era. Committing four years of your life to rote memorization of information that may be readily available through Google and another 10 to paying it off is no longer the path to prosperity it once was. In today’s world, degrees don’t matter—skills do. And grades don’t matter—attitude and results do.
We need to welcome new education platforms, including programming bootcamps, to tackle problems like our skills mismatch. We need more schools that are startups, run by people young enough to understand the problems with higher education while they’re still fresh in their heads.
Given the rapid advancement of web development, why is it appropriate for a programming bootcamp to have a curriculum that is set in stone? Why can’t we as educators be given the freedom to take advantage of the tight feedback loop that our classroom provides by constantly experimenting and iterating to see what works? Why do we need to offer transcripts when we know GPA is a poor indicator of success? Why do we need to fail people and not allow them to finish our program because they’re having difficulty learning?
If education providers are always forced to conform to the same standard we’ll inevitably end up with the same results. The same measuring stick shouldn’t always be used for something that’s profoundly different.